Macau – From Humble Trading port to Gambling Capital of the World

by Lance Ekum on · 0 comments

Having overtaken Las Vegas as the leading gambling destination in the world, Macau not only boasts many of the biggest and most spectacular casino resorts, it also has a rich and diverse cultural history just waiting to be explored and enjoyed. East meets west in the most spectacular of ways, ensuring that visitors will always have plenty to tantalize all of their senses, both in the variety of games like poker, roulette and blackjack as well as in entertainment and dining options. Let’s take at the past which guided this location to where it is today, and what modern visitors can encounter in this thriving Asian destination.

The Oriental trading gateway between east and west

Nestled on the western side of the Pearl River estuary in southern China, the peninsula and islands of Macau were home to the Tanka boat people and migrating fishermen for many centuries, until the Age of Discovery brought Portuguese naval adventurers exploring the coastal areas of Africa and Asia, early in the 16th century. Already beginning to establish trade bases in the region, it was only after a shipwreck in 1535 that Portuguese traders were allowed to weigh anchor in the small harbors of Macau. Despite initial friction between the Ming Dynasty and Portuguese Empire, aid from the European nation in eliminating piracy along the southern Chinese coast brought more cordial relations.

In 1557, the Ming court consented to a permanent trade base in Macau for the Portuguese, who paid 44 pounds in weight of silver annually as rent. By the end of the 16th century and after the establishment of a small colonial settlement, Macau quickly became an important Asian trading hub and a location of strategic importance as well as a key center for Catholic missionaries in the region. The Portuguese colony flourished for almost two centuries, although British trading dominance and control of nearby Hong Kong by the mid-19th-century brought a gradual decline as the key port in the area.

Although there has always been a popular gambling and betting culture in Macau since the earliest colonial days, it was only during the 1850s when the Portuguese colonial government introduced legislation to legalize gambling, including real money poker and roulette. Just a few years later, a licensing system was also introduced for over 200 Chinese Fantan gambling houses, which were then required to pay gambling rents and taxes to the colonial government. Trade had always been the principal source of revenues, but such was the popularity of gambling in Macau, it quickly established a reputation for itself as the so-called “Monte Carlo of the Orient” and eventually, gambling revenues soon outstripped all others.

Image Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)
Caption: 1639 map of old Macau

The Tai Heng Company was granted a gambling monopoly in 1937, although the economic potential it controlled was never fully realized. However, In 1962 the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau (STDM) was formed, a syndicate established jointly by businessmen from Macau and nearby Hong Kong. Granted monopoly rights to all forms of gambling by the Portuguese government, they modernized marine transport links between Hong Kong and Macau and brought popular western-style games such as baccarat and poker to the casinos. This attracted millions of eager gamblers from Hong Kong each year, where laws and legislation much were stricter.

Macau became a special administrative region of China (SAR) in 1999, as Portugal relinquished control of their former colony, just two years after Britain had done the same with Hong Kong. Despite no initial changes to gambling, in 2002, the Macau government ended the monopoly system and casino and poker room operating concessions were granted, bringing an influx of western casino operators and within just five years, Macau rapidly cemented its place as the gambling capital of the world, vastly surpassing even Las Vegas since 2007 in terms of revenues.

Appealing tourist delights of every era and style

Just an hour across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong by boat and a hop over its peninsula border with China, Macau has been a hugely popular destination for tourists within its own region for many decades. Since the turn of the 21st century, Macau has also enjoyed an ever-growing surge in popularity as a go-to location for tourists from practically every corner of the globe looking to play Texas Hold’em, baccarat, French roulette and more, having reinvented itself with a revolution of modern development, alongside its historic trading past.

Undoubtedly, the huge growth of recent years has been the fruit of massive investment and jaw-dropping construction projects. After the first major international casinos such as Sands Macau opened in 2004, great demand for limited space led to two square miles of the Seac Pai Bay being reclaimed from the sea, forming what is now the Cotai Strip. This is where the biggest casino resort hotel complexes can be found, such as The Venetian Macao, which is impressively even bigger than its Las Vegas counterpart. It boasts over 3,000 suites, 3,400 slot machines, and 800 gaming tables; including exclusive VIP poker tables for the high rollers, mainly offering Texas Hold’em games.

Nevertheless, moving away from the glamor and glitz of the luxurious casino resorts, there’s a wealth of fabulous sights to see and delicious tastes to savor. What genuinely defines Macau is the rich fusion of Chinese and Western cultures, with the beautifully preserved historic center recognized as being of Outstanding Universal Value, after achieving UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2005. This wonderfully intertwined union of cultural influences has also led to Macau being designated as an important UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, thanks to the culinary combinations of Chinese, Macanese and Portuguese cuisine.

Image Source: Wikipedia
Caption: Senado Square, Macau – (CC BY-SA 3.0) by luchangjiang~???

Sightseeing in Macau and taking in the wildly contrasting sights is like taking a walk through the chapters of time itself. Discovering the ancient A-Ma Temple, visitors will encounter a monument that pre-dates the city of Macau itself, with pavilions dedicated to the worship of various beliefs within Chinese culture, including Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and multiple folk beliefs. The Christian missionary influence is also represented, with various sites such as the hilltop Chapel of Our Lady of Penha, founded in 1622 as a place of prayer for sailors, before they set sail on the open seas.

The urban center of Macau for centuries, Senado Square is the heart of the Portuguese colonial influence, surrounded by their European architectural influence and bringing a Mediterranean look. Of course, the city also needed to defend itself from rival colonial factions as they jostled for power in the Orient, which is represented by the imposing Mount and Guia Fortresses. Amidst all these architectural wonders are beauties of nature and horticulture, which also demonstrate the uniting of cultures in both style and design, offering a tranquil escape from the surrounding urban hustle and bustle.

Staying entertained in a city that never slumbers

Without any shadow of a doubt, what has firmly put Macau on the modern map is its place as the gambling capital of the world – having taken over from. Some of the best poker venues in Asia are here, such as the City of Dreams with a dedicated poker room, the Wynn Macau, where no-limit hold’em poker and pot-limit Omaha games can be played, no matter the hour of day, and the Casino Lisboa, which is one of the most historic venues in Macau and offers a three-table poker room with the lowest stakes in town in no-limit hold’em games, making for a thriving and vibrant poker community filled with professionals and enthusiasts alike. Along with the slot machines, other western-style table games such as baccarat, many of the biggest casino resorts also feature traditionally popular Asian games like sic bo and of course, the game on which Macau’s gambling empire was built, fantan.

Taking a break from the poker tables and slot machines filling the casino floors, there’s never any shortage of entertainment on offer at the casino resorts themselves. All year round, visual spectaculars such as the Chinese Show Monkey King at Sands Cotai Theatre, or the spectacular Performance Lake in the open arena in front of the Wynn, are filled with amazing sights and sounds to enjoy. For a cultural treat, check out the Yueju Opera, which dates back over 300 years and continues to expressively employ the Cantonese dialect in performances. If you just want to just kick back and relax with a drink or two, then beyond the hotel resorts themselves, there are many with stunning sunset views over the Pearl River.

Image Source: Wikipedia
Caption: Nam Van Lake, Macau – (CC BY-SA 4.0) by Diego Delso

There is quite literally something for every preference for visitors to enjoy in Macau, whether you’re hitting the poker tables at one of the luxurious and spectacular modern resort hotels, or surrounding yourself with cultural and architectural wonders; all before treating your taste buds to the fabulous and varied cuisine. It’s no wonder Macau is now the gambling capital of the world, but it’s so much more than that.

Lance writes stories from his heart, aiming to inspire and motivate, as you align more fully with YOUR true peak. When he's not here, you can find him hanging out with his family, riding a bike, or just generally acting goofy.   Sign up for the Thoughts from the Treehouse newsletter and get additional inspiration in your email inbox!
Lance Ekum
View all posts by Lance Ekum
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